The start to Puka Nacua’s career has been magnificent to watch and he has a fantastic opportunity now to prove that his status as a fifth round draft pick will be the worst decision by teams in the 2023 NFL Draft. And hopefully that’s complimentary enough for Rams fans to forgive me for pointing out the obvious, which is that the return of Cooper Kupp two weeks ago has shined a spotlight on Puka’s flaws and opened the door for Matthew Stafford to forget about the rookie and to turn back to the 2021 Offensive Player of the Year for the rest of the season.
Since Kupp returned to the field two games ago, he has caught 15 passes for 266 yards on 21 targets. That means that in his career with Stafford, Kupp has averaged 108 yards per game and been targeted almost 11 times per contest. This is not even including Kupp’s dominant 2021 postseason performance with 478 yards and six touchdowns in four games.
In those games, Stafford has rarely found a willingness to target a second receiver anywhere close to the same rate. When he has, like the first half in 2021 with Robert Woods and the second half of 2021 with Odell Beckham, Jr., Stafford didn’t find the same results with those receivers and kept feeding Kupp instead. The team traded Woods in 2022 and then gave Allen Robinson a one-year rental before trading him too.
Then came something new, a young receiver who Stafford and Sean McVay actually seemed to like as much as Kupp. Puka Nacua.
Over the first four games, Puka set records with 501 yards and 39 catches on 52 targets, leading the NFL in receptions and targets. Nacua was also second in the league in yards and has proven to be one of the most productive rookie receivers in NFL history to start his career.
However, since Kupp’s return in Week 5, Puka Nacua has been targeted 18 times and caught 11 passes for 97 yards. That’s 8.8 yards per catch and 5.4 yards per target. Puka also led the NFL in dropped passes going into Week 6, then dropped a would-be touchdown pass against the Cardinals that drew the ire of some Rams fans.
Puka drops what would've been a touchdown. Couldn't hold onto it going to the ground. He's had some drop trouble this season.— Cameron DaSilva (@camdasilva) October 15, 2023
Perhaps also the ire of Stafford.
I love Puka with all my heart trust me, but he drops a lot of passes :(— Puka Nacua SZN (@RamsChamps10) October 15, 2023
Great as Puka has been. He drops a lot of easy ones.— Sam Ramirez (@SRAM541) October 15, 2023
Puka's drops are tiring to witness— SmugleafRaptors (@SmugleafRaptors) October 15, 2023
This comes a week after Puka fumbled against the Eagles.
So in the last two games, Puka Nacua is averaging 5.4 yards per target — for perspective, Allen Robinson is averaging 5.3 yards per target with the Steelers this year, good for 109th in the NFL — and he has two drops, one fumble, and one touchdown.
When the Rams return next week to play the Pittsburgh Steelers, will Puka Nacua be as trusted as he was in the first four games without Kupp?
At least he so far seems to have stayed well ahead of Tutu Atwell.
Atwell came out firing like we had never seen before, gaining 196 yards on 13 catches in the first two games. Then in Week 3, Tutu caught four passes for 50 yards and a touchdown, while he probably should have had a second if the refs didn’t say he stepped out of bounds, which was a borderline call. But Atwell managed just 24 yards against the Colts in Week 4 and he’s been practically nonexistent since Kupp’s return.
After averaging nine targets per game in the first four weeks, Tutu Atwell has been targeted just six times in the last two contests, catching three passes for 39 yards and a touchdown. In Week 5, Atwell had two catches on five targets for nine yards and a touchdown. In Week 6, Atwell was targeted only once by Stafford, catching a 30-yard pass. That’s sort of the Tutu we had come to expect going into the season based on his first two years in the league and after a short stint as a deep threat worth a second round pick, he has reverted back to our expectations since Kupp’s return.
“Why throw to Tutu Atwell now when I have back Cooper Kupp?” says Sean McVay through Matthew Stafford.
It’s hard to tell if Tutu, who is actually averaging fewer yards per target and catch this year than he did last year, is really that much safer on the roster than Van Jefferson was, the former second round pick traded last week for an En Vogue CD. Atwell crossed the 300 yard mark for the first time in his three-season career on Sunday, but he’s little more than a gimmick at this point.
Puka Nacua has so clearly proven to be an asset, as compared to Atwell and Jefferson, but his mistakes are piling up at such a rate that Stafford may not continue to feed him the ball 10-12 times per game now that he has Cooper Kupp back at his disposal. Will Puka turn out to be the next Robert Woods...or the next Tyler Higbee? The mistake-prone tight end is no stranger to being dominant for five games at a time.
He had 43 catches for 522 yards and two touchdowns in the final five games of the 2019 season, all greater numbers than Puka’s first five games of the 2023 season. How soon we forget when the stats don’t start in Week 1.
Everyone here is a fan of Puka Nacua. You, me, Stafford, and McVay. But it takes more than being a fan. It takes trust. And with two games to find out what Puka looks like next to Cooper, the last thing that has developed between him and Stafford has been trust.